By Karri L. Moser
As I procrastinate finishing the first book in a series about an unwilling Maine resort owner/unwilling divorcee/35-year-old woman who’s struggling to find her way, I started to think about bourbon. The scene I’m currently in the midst of writing involves the above character drowning her sorrows in a glass of that barrel-aged delight. She drops two ice cubes in and they gravitate to the sides of the thick glass. The scent is unleashed and weaves its way to her nose as she closes her eyes. I wouldn’t have attempted a scene so reliant on bourbon had I not gained an appreciation for it during our time stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Kentucky is bourbon country. It’s where more than 95% of the world’s bourbon is made. The limestone along the streams is what makes bourbon possible in this part of the country. Until I moved there and toured a few distilleries, I had no idea about the history, importance, and distinct properties of bourbon. All I knew was that a shot of Jim Beam burned and not engulfing it all in one tip of a shot glass made you a wimp. Much like anything else in life, that burn can be eased with an understanding and a willingness to learn how to savor it.
My first trip to a bourbon distillery was to Jim Beam. The buildings and history were fascinating, as was the family tree and the fact that the Beam family still owns so much of the market. We saw bourbon being created in its various stages. We got to smell the char from the inside of the oak barrels, which gives bourbon it’s brown color. We were able to touch and taste the liquid at its purest and most potent form. The enthusiasm, artistry, and intensity with which it’s created by generations of one American family was inspiring. The tour guides and those who work at the distillery told the Beam story with pride and enthusiasm about sharing the craft. The warehouses that dot the Kentucky hills around each distillery are filled with thousands and thousands of oak barrels, each stamped and awaiting its turn to unleash its contents. The barrels are stacked more than ten stories high and aged for years. There are more barrels of bourbon warehoused in Kentucky than there are people. The longer it’s aged, the better it tastes and more expensive it will be.
After the tours and history lesson came the tasting. Tasting Jim Beam while at the Jim Beam distillery, and Maker’s Mark at their distillery, Heaven Hill at theirs, and Barton’s 1792 (my personal favorite) at their distillery, was an experience you can’t replicate in your own kitchen or bar. We were taught to savor the smell, color, and age of bourbon. The way of tasting it for the first time, much like wine tasting, involved letting it sit in your mouth, chewing it, letting it flow from one side of your mouth to the other to unleash the hidden nuances. There were lingering sparks of spices, woodiness, and the hardiness of a formula for making a truly great American drink. The added flavors of some, including honey and maple, were satisfying and made it easier to enjoy mixed with ginger ale or ice. But, straight and slow was the best way to judge each kind. When enjoyed straight and slow, each type and swallow was like a hug. It was warmth followed by a sense of comfort and individual attention. The bourbon left its mark on your tongue and cheeks as the feeling spread throughout your body. Several tastings, like hugs, left you feeling light, airy, protected, and simply happier than before you embraced its goodness.
Before Kentucky showed me, taught me, and warmed me to bourbon, I enjoyed wine and beer, mainly. Now, I understand the enjoyment and excitement seen in the eyes of bourbon lovers when the ice swirls around the glass or a long-treasured bottle is opened for the first time. It is the drink of the dignified, the down-trodden, the adventurer, the loner, and the lonely. It is a drink for everyman, rich or poor, created by generations of everyman. It’s best enjoyed after a hard day at work, an exceptional victory or epic failure, with friends on special occasions, or if the occasion is simply stumbling across a great bottle. It can be handed down, handed out, and shared. It can be a closely guarded remedy for a cold or a broken heart, comfort on a brutally bitter cold night, or after a brutally bitter fight. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, and you get out of it what you put into it. The good stuff is worth the price and the satisfaction makes it worth the time to learn how to enjoy properly. So, before throwing back a shot of the cheap stuff, dabble in something deeper, richer, slower, and so much more fulfilling, something that makes life burn a little less—a good bourbon.
I’m hoping after a glass or two, my main character feels the same way.